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A New Normal

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Ellie used the next morning to move Joe’s things outdoors. She’d picked the shed to put them in, because as soon as she’d had them all boxed up the day before, she knew she couldn’t keep them in the house. But Tom had come home, and she couldn’t move them with him there; it was her choice whether she wanted them in her room or not, but Tom deserved an explanation before he saw her dump his father’s things outside like rubbish.

So she’d waited for Luce and Olly to take the kids for the day. Tom was looking forward to it, she knew; he missed having his dad around to play with, and he looked up to Oliver.

She’d worry about that, later.

Ellie wiped her brow and brushed away the curls that’d stuck to her forehead, settling on the wooden steps outside the shed to catch her breath in the tepid morning sun. And as she did, she heard the rhythmic crunch of gravel announcing company.

Beth?

“Miller?”

She swung the heavy doors closed behind her and snapped the padlock, twirling the dial away from the last number in the combination, then wove her way through the unkept yard and through the house.

“Miller!”

“For God’s sake, I’m coming!”, she shouted, and she cursed when she stubbed a toe on her way to open the door. “Why are you here?”

“We have a case”, he said, as if it were obvious.

“You know I’m on leave right?”

Hardy snorted.

She glared.

“You’re serious?”

“I don’t know, maybe. What’s the case?”

He took that as an invitation to come in, and she sighed.

“D’you have tea on, Miller?”

“Oh, you want tea now?”

He looked up from where he was rearranging her living room. “We’ll need it if we’re gonna get any work done.”

“I haven’t even agreed yet!”

“Didn’t you?”

“Git”, she hissed, and she felt lighter than she had since mushy stir-fry.

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Ellie supervised from the kitchen; there was nothing else to do while she waited for the kettle to boil, the tea to steep. So she kept an eye on him.

He seemed distant—more distant than usual, if that were possible. He kept getting distracted, like he’d lay a file out, and look at it, but only for a second. Then he’d stare at one of Fred’s drawings like he were an art critic, or he’d watch the kids age through their photos on the wall, or he’d touch something; she’d looked away to add milk to their mugs, but she was almost certain she hadn’t folded her gran’s afghan. Yet there it was, laying neatly along the back of the couch while Alec Hardy squinted at a piece of paper.

“Thought I would’ve known if there was a case around here”, she said, and she passed him a mug before settling next to him.

It was oddly reassuring. She could almost feel his warmth through the gap between them—even though he wore a full suit—and she could smell whatever it was he wore: soap, deodorant, cologne, hair product. She wasn’t sure what is was, but it smelled a bit like home, like ragged wind and sun-scorched sand, cold tide and endless night, and it was almost as soothing as his physical presence.

Everyone else kept their distance—even Beth, who was prone to taking her hand or squeezing her arm in show of comfort. Somehow though, there was always a space, like they were touching, but they weren’t. Like the sun that warmed the earth, from a million miles away.

But Hardy, he was like the cliffs. She didn’t need to touch him to know that he was there, and he was real, and he’d buffer the merciless ocean winds until he crumbled into the sea.

“It’s not one of ours”, he explained, and he raised his mug in thanks before having a drink.

“What does that even mean?”

“We’re consulting. Apparently Jenkinson owes someone a favor.” He smirked.

“No! Dirty Jenkinson?”

“Miller, that is a superior officer you’re talking about!”

“You said it first!”

“You’ll have a hard time proving that in court”, he snorted, and his eyes went wide for the briefest moment when he realized. “Sorry, er…”

“No, it’s—it’s okay.”

They drank their tea in silence.

“I picked it up when I got in last night. Back from Sandbrook”, he clarified.

“Visiting your daughter?”

“Daisy”, he said. "I brought her to university."

“University! Oh, wow. What’s she studying?”

“Literature.” His lips quirked in a smile, and he quickly redirected, in what she presumed was an effort to disguise his humanity, “it’s not really consulting, so much as reviewing.”

Ellie plucked a sheet from the array. “Don’t they have people for that?”

“Not like this. We’re overseeing in real-time: we’ll get all their documents, have access to all their evidence, and have all the same authority granted our respective titles.”

“But that sounds like consulting. So what’s different?”

His smile spoke volumes, almost like he was disgusted with himself. “Whoever it is we’re watching over—and Jenkinson won’t tell me who—they don’t know we’re doing it.”

“And you’re okay with that?”

“They don’t want to put their DI on leave to review their work, especially since their Chief Super doesn’t think there’s anything to worry about in the first place. So if we can keep can a good cop from being put on leave for a stupid reason…”

He didn’t look at her, but he didn’t have to.

“Yeah”, she said.

It hung between them in place of a hundred other words, and he must have felt it, because he straightened his jacket for no reason and cleared his throat.

“And anyway, Jenkinson seems to think it’s a good idea to keep me busy. I don’t disagree.”

She laughed.

“So, Miller: d’you want the job?”

“Oh my god. Did you just offer me a job?”

She thought he might drop his tea. “That’s not—”

“A job? You are…such an arrogant twit! I should be offering you that job!”

They both knew it wasn’t true, that it was an oversimplification.

Hardy played along anyway.